The [Japanese] could have landed anywhere on the coast, and after our handful of ammunition was gone, they could have shot us like pigs in a pen.
— Major General Joseph Warren Stilwell
Commander, Western Defense Command Southern Sector
(December 11, 1941)
Editor's note: It was still a peaceful morning on December 7, 1941 when the news came in from across the Pacific that Japanese aircraft had bombed Pearl Harbor. On the West Coast, the naïve complacency that “it can’t happen here” abruptly rotated to the frenzied fear that “it can happen here, and it can happen at any moment!”
In his new book, "Panic on the Pacific: How America Prepared for a West Coast Invasion," noted historian and author Bill Yenne returns to the dark and fearful early months of World War II to examine the reaction of the people, the politicians, and the military to what was genuinely perceived as an immediate threat of a full-scale Japanese invasion. Here are seven things that you may not know happened on the West Coast after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
1. On December 7, the Japanese almost burned down their consulate in San Francisco.
At the Japanese Consulate on Jackson Street, Consul General Yoshio Muto and his secretary, Kazuyoshi Inagaki, were taken by surprise with the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked— just like everyone else in the city.
Their reaction was to get rid of all their sensitive files. They became so consumed with shoveling paperwork into the big fireplace, that the flames got out of control and almost consumed the sprawling mansion. The fire department had to be called.
2. General John DeWitt, the West Coast Army commander, grew so paranoid that he cancelled the Rose Bowl.
Being deathly afraid of a Japanese attack on the West Coast at any moment, the commander of the US Army’s Western Defense Command banned large gatherings. Among other things, DeWitt ordered that the Rose Bowl, which was always played in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day, be cancelled.
Duke University generously offered to host the game at its stadium in Durham, North Carolina. Favored by 14, the Duke Blue Devils lost a close 20-16 game to Oregon State. It was the Beavers’ only Rose Bowl victory ever.
3. The U.S. military had to borrow machine guns from Hollywood.
On the afternoon of December 7, Fritz Dickie at Stembridge Gun Rentals in Hollywood received a phone call from the U.S. Coast Guard. Stembridge operated what was known in the trade as the “Gun Room” on the Paramount Pictures lot. Founded in 1920 to supply firearms to the film industry, the facility was one of the biggest private arsenals anywhere. The Coast Guard needed guns — especially Thompson Submachine Guns. “We loaded them on trucks and, by night, the guns which had been used mostly in gangster pictures were ready for the feared Japanese invasion,” Dickie recalled.
4. Japanese Navy submarines did prowl the West Coast.
Beginning shortly after Pearl Harbor, a flotilla of Japanese submarines attacked shipping up and down the West Coast in a reign of terror that lasted until Christmas Eve. In one instance, people on the Pacific Coast Highway in California watched the submarine I-21 attack and sink the Union Oil Company tanker SS Montebello just a short distance offshore. “She upended like a giant telephone pole and slowly settled into the sea,” wrote a newspaper editor who witnessed the attack.
5. The West Coast actually was bombed by Japanese aircraft.
The Japanese air attack feared and predicted by General DeWitt and others immediately after Pearl Harbor actually did materialize— though not for ten months. In September 1942, Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita flew two bombing missions over southwestern Oregon in a seaplane that was carried in a water tight hangar on the deck of the submarine I-25. The object was to use incendiary bombs to start forest fires. It had been a damp summer that year and the fires did not spread
6. One Japanese Attack on the West Coast was a grudge match.
In addition to their attacks on merchant ships, the Japanese submarines shelled the coast three times, including strikes against Estevan Point in British Columbia and Fort Stevens in Oregon.
The first attack came on the evening of February 23, 1942, when Commander Kozo Nishino brought the I-17 from beneath the waves and ordered his deck gunners to begin lobbing shells at the Ellwood oil fields north of Santa Barbara, California. For Nishino, this was no random target. Before the war, he had been the captain of an oil tanker that came to load crude oil here. As he was coming ashore, he slipped and fell into a cactus. Workers on a nearby oil rig laughed at the sight of him plucking cactus spines from his posterior. Nishino swore to get even.
7. The Battle of Los Angeles, called a false alarm at the time, still raises questions.
On the night of February 24, 1942, after weeks of rumors of Japanese aircraft operating with impunity over the West Coast, reports deemed credible led air defense officials to order an alert.
As searchlights stabbed the night sky over Southern California, hundreds of people reported seeing unidentified aircraft in the sky. Long Beach Police Chief Joseph McClelland watched nine. At the Inglewood City Hall, policemen saw over 150. Anti-iaircraft guns responded with 1,440 large shells and countless .50-caliber rounds. Because of this, no American interceptors took off to join the fray.
There were dozens of reports of a large, round, slow-moving object in the sky. Some thought it to be a balloon, while others insisted it was definitely not.
Future UFO enthusiasts would, and still do, focus a great deal of attention on this aspect of the night’s excitement.
The next day in Washington, Secretary of War Henry Stimson confirmed that there “probably” were enemy aircraft. U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall said that “as many as 15 planes may have been involved.” However, Navy Secretary Frank Knox announced that it was all a “false alarm.” Because these conflicting initial assessments were never resolved, many people assumed that deliberate government obfuscation was in play.
To this day, the Battle of Los Angeles “cover‑up” still draws its own cadre of true believers whenever conspiracy theorists congregate.